For the love of math: Bandile Mbele’s journey from South Africa to the Berkeley MFE Program

Bandile Mbele, a student in the master of financial engineering program at Haas, was the top math student in his undergraduate program at the University of Cape Town. He’d never traveled outside of South Africa before he arrived at Berkeley in March. Photo (in Berkeley): Brittany Hosea-Small.

Bandile Mbele landed at San Francisco Airport from South Africa in early March, just before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic.

“Everything was just weird,” said Mbele, who had traveled outside of South Africa for the first time in order to join 95 students in the 2021 Master of Financial Engineering Program class at Berkeley Haas. “I just sat for an hour at the airport and took it all in.”

For the 25-year-old, who had grown up in a township in Newcastle, South Africa, coronavirus was just another challenge. When the pandemic continued longer than he ever expected, Mbele relied on the same resilience that led him to the top-ranked Berkeley MFE program.

It’s not been easy for Mbele (pronounced “M-bay-lay”). For the first three weeks he struggled to catch up with online coursework and prepare for internship interviews. “I was learning the material but it wasn’t sticking in my head,” he said. But by April 15—he remembers the exact date—there was a shift. “I woke up and everything started clicking. Things were much more calm.” More relief came when he landed a coveted 12-week internship with Morgan Stanley, which starts in October.

The journey to Berkeley Haas

Mbele attended the University of Cape Town, where he earned both an undergraduate degree in actuarial science and a master’s degree in mathematical finance. Yet he might not have continued his studies at Haas if not for his former undergraduate classmate, Gary Finkelstein, MFE 20.

Chatting one day, Finkelstein told MFE program Executive Director Linda Kreitzman about Mbele, whom he considered a perfect MFE applicant. “I asked him, ‘Is he as good as you?’” Kreitzman said. “Gary said, ‘He’s even better than me at math.’”

Always searching for students who can meet the program’s rigorous quantitative requirements, Kreitzman made it her mission to bring Mbele to Haas. She asked Finkelstein, now an energy trader in London, to help.

One June night, Finkelstein called Mbele, who was playing PlayStation after a day of work at his job at insurance company Old Mutual. The two chatted, and then the conversation got more serious. Would he be interested in applying to the MFE?  Finkelstein mentioned the possibility of a scholarship that Kreitzman had established through the family of Kyle Carlston, MFE 06.

Suddenly, the idea of coming to Berkeley became real.

“Numbers since the day I was born”

Bandile "has great humility and depth of character that I haven’t often seen in my life," says the MFE executive director Linda Kreitzman.
Bandile “has great humility and depth of character that I haven’t often seen in my life,” says the MFE executive director Linda Kreitzman, who worked with South African MFE alum Gary Finkelstein to bring Mbele to Haas.

Before Mbele could accept a place in the MFE program, he had to convince his mother, Patricia, a teacher in a juvenile detention center in Durban, South Africa, that he’d be okay in America. From the start, his mother had played a role in nurturing his love of math, hanging the numbers 1 to 100 in different colors in his room when he was a baby, Mbele said adding “All of my toys had numbers on them.”

His mother helped him move from Newcastle, where he lived alone for a time with his older brother, to Durban, where he could attend good public schools.

In 7th grade, math became a more serious pursuit for Mbele, who was honored as the class’ top-ranked math student, “a game changer that made me realize I had potential,” he said. Later, at Westville Boys’ High School in Durban, he continued to excel academically, which led him to the University of Cape Town. There, he became the top undergraduate math student in a class of 400. “I’m just so passionate about math,” said Mbele, who has tutored students in math for years. “I think I love abstract thinking and the power that comes with that level of thought. I feel like I can understand almost anything.”

I’m just so passionate about math. I think I love abstract thinking and the power that comes with that level of thought.

Mbele finally convinced his mother that the MFE opportunity was too good to pass up—with the help of Kreitzman, who told him that she planned to meet his mom at Mbele’s graduation, if she’s able to attend.

“I was lucky to work with him.”

In the MFE program, Mbele joins students from around the world who are just as passionate about financial skills as he is, coming together for an intense year-long program of quantitative finance and data science coursework and industry projects that will lead many of them to top quant jobs at Wall Street banks and investment firms. (Impressively, about a third of the class, including Mbele, already earned a master’s degree before arriving at Haas.)

Aside from academics, making friends in the program has proven challenging for some of the students without the usual in-person parties and study groups. “The most difficult part was getting to know people over Zoom, especially on a deeper level,” said Mbele’s classmate Renee Reynolds, who added that one-on-one meetings that the students do on the Donut Slack app are helping.

The most difficult part was getting to know people over Zoom, especially on a deeper level. — Mbele’s classmate Renee Reynolds, MFE 21

Mbele and classmate Shamai Zhang got to know each other through lengthy study sessions during the summer semester, typically the MFE’s most difficult due to the daunting Derivatives: Quantitative Methods course. “I was lucky to work with him on that course because he was responsible and effective,” she said. “When I took a look at his work it was so nice, the format, the code, the solutions, and interpretations.”

“A humility and depth of character”

Linda Kreitzman, executive director of the MFE program, is “like my mom who has a lot of kids that she takes care of,” Mbele said.

While it’s sad that students can’t all be together in person, Kreitzman said she tries to unite them with riddles, puns, and games for prizes, and phone calls to check on how they are coping. The students planned weekly online poker games during spring semester, which fell off as the course load got heavier in summer.

Kreitzman said she has no regrets about bringing Mbele to Haas, noting the doors that will open for him with his MFE degree.

“Bandile is a very special young man,” Kreitzman said. “He has great humility and depth of character that I haven’t often seen in my life. He is pure kindness and truly embodies our four Haas Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.”

Mbele said he’s always been grateful for what he has—adding Kreitzman to that list now. “She’s like my mom who has a lot of kids that she takes care of,” he said.

After graduating, Mbele said he’s hoping to stay in the U.S., depending on his visa situation, to work for a few years, meet people, and embrace different cultures.

“I’m open to anything,” he said.

 

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